Monthly Archives: November 2007


If you get on well, there’s no person better to travel with than a sister. You can share a room and toothpaste. You can talk or stay silent as you want and, perhaps best of all, you don’t have to explain why you find certain things funny. As I have 5 sisters, I think I’m something of an expert and I think I can say with some authority that my oldest sister, Alice, is a the perfect travelling companion. Not only does she quite understand why I want to go to the top of crags, castles and mountains even though I’m terrified of heights, but she only laughs a bit when she sees me crawling between castellations not daring to look at the view we’ve driven a hundred miles to see. And then, in the evenings, you can gossip – always a staple of sisters (see blog for All Souls). So – a week with a sister in la belle France, and my goodness was south west France looking belle last week, is a proper excursion, i.e. one from which you return filled with cakes, wine, postcards, books, bits of old stone (I collect them to remind me of the colour) and enough family chat to keep you going until the next time.

Some people concentrate their researches on facts but actually for a novelist it’s far more important to research for atmosphere. Facts you can get from books or the web. Atmosphere you have to live: breathing the air, battling the wind, climbing the climb, walking the walk, viewing the view (in theory at any rate). At least that’s what I tell my accountant.

My sister also does marvellous silhouettes, which she creates and sells. I’m going to post up some of the Cathar chateaux in due course because she manages to evoke the essential spirit of the place much better than many photographers. In our age of colour, we forget how powerful black on white is.

So, home. Glasgow is not quite Carcassonne or Limoux or Pamiers or Fanjeaux or Puivert or Puilaurens or Montsegur or or or. But it will have to do for the time being. And anyway, if we’d stayed much longer I’d be the size of a house. Sisters are not good for diets. Only with a sister is ‘Oh, go on then,’ always the default answer to the question ‘shall we?’ at the patisserie.


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eating cake

Sometimes the life of an author can’t get much better. Here I am, strolling about France with Alice, my oldest sister, following the journeys made by Yolanda and Raimon in Blue Flame, but eating rather better than they would have done, I suspect. Cakes were consumed beneath Beynac Castle on the banks of the Dordogne today under the watchful eyes of two magnificent eagles. So sad that this is our last full day! Tomorrow we go to pay homage to Richard the Lionheart at Chalus Chabrol, just south of Limoges. We’ll stand by the keep next to which he was struck by a quarrel from a lucky (or unlucky) crossbow and died of gangrene a few days later. Moral of that story is always to put your armour on properly and no skimping. The crossbowman was flayed alive, despite Richard’s forgiveness. I’d rather have died of gangrene.

Anyhow, we began our trip in the stunning fortress town of Carcassonne which rises from the plateau like something from a fairytale, then moseyed on into high mountains of the Ariege and the Aude, with the Cathar castles impossibly perched on impossibly high crags making the head spin before we’d even begun to climb. We picnicked on the top of Montsegur, wondering how they ever got 600 knights inside its gloomy walls, and how ever they withstood the wind. When we set sail over the mountains to the west of Foix, both of us had such bad vertigo that even Alice, who was driving, had to close her eyes at the sheer drops to our right. An exciting ride we had, as did all those who met us. But the view over the peaks from the top took the breath away, as did the descent. Oh, there’s nothing like a good mountain to get the heart beating. Those Cathar heretics should have been given medals for bravery not burnt on pyres.

Early start tomorrow, and there’s wine to be consumed, to say nothing of a few more cakes. Ah, the author’s life is a very happy one.


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